It may well be that no other country in Europe has reversed its refugee policy as rapidly as Austria. Now Vienna sees itself in the vanguard of European refugee policy.
The German Chancellor has faced hefty headwinds for her open border policy for some time now. Until recently, she was able to count on support from neighboring Austria and its Social Democrat Chancellor Werner Faymann (above right with EU Council President Donald Tusk). He got along with Angela Merkel on refugee matters. The two leaders worked closely together, even though they come from different parties. That is now no longer the case.
While Merkel officially has stuck to her line, thereby isolating herself in Europe, Austria has made a drastic about-face within a matter of weeks. In September 2015, Faymann criticized Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban's policy of deterrence, and now, Austria is following suit.
Austria has imposed a cap on the number refugees it will allow into the country and the authorities will now only accept 80 asylum applications per day. A four kilometer long fence has been erected near the town of Spielfeld at the Slovenian border. When Hungary built a fence along its border with Serbia in the autumn, Faymann fiercely attacked the activities. Now, even the armed forces are deployed at the Austrian border.
Austria made its spectacular political move shortly before a crucial EU summit in mid-February when the country withdrew its efforts to find a common European solution. Vienna then teamed up with a number of eastern EU and Balkan countries to help Macedonia close its border with EU member Greece. Austrians have been angry for a long time about Greece's policy of "waving through" migrants and refugees. Now, Austria's policy has set off a domino effect along the Balkan route and the country has simply accepted the fact that people are now stranded in Greece.
The Austrian policy reversal does not really come as a surprise. Last fall, several Austrian ministers expressed critical views on the country's liberal refugee policy, especially the conservative Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner from the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), the junior partner in the grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ).
"We need to build a European fortress as quickly as possible," she said in October, when the term "Fortress Europe" still carried negative connotations.
Her fellow party member, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, did not mince words when he spoke to the "Kleine Zeitung," saying, "I want us to clearly tell Europe, especially Germany, 'The invitation policy must come to an end.'"
Public opinion changed the government's mind
At that time, the Social Democrat Faymann still resisted this position and emphasized the common ground with Merkel. Today, he clearly sets himself apart from the chancellor in Berlin. He even went as far as derisively saying that if Merkel did not agree with the closure of the Macedonian border, then she should just pick up the refugees directly from there and take them to Germany. Faymann says, "No, we cannot do it," as an allusion to Merkel's famous and often repeated phrase "We can do it."
Domestically, Faymann has thus adapted to the mood of his compatriots. However, Alev Korun, the human rights spokeswoman of the Austrian Greens, said, "The unholy alliance of the unwilling in the EU will lead to abrupt border closures and the deportation of asylum seekers to Greece." The majority of Austrians, however, think differently. Austria has accepted more refugees per capita than Germany. Right now, pressure is mounting on the coalition government as opinion polls show that the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) under Heinz-Christian Strache is leading at 30 percent and could therefore become the strongest political force in the country. The Cologne New Year's Eve attacks have corroborated skeptics and opponents of the migrants. Faymann's new policy has gained him immediate support from his compatriots. Until recently, the Austrian chancellor was described as a weak leader; now, polls show a clear upward trend.
Germany benefitting from Austrian position
Since then, Faymann and his ministers no longer need to depict the policy change merely as a necessary evil. They even believe that they are doing Germany a favor, despite criticism from Berlin. Last Monday, Austrian Defense Minister Hans-Peter Doskozil from the SPÖ said that right now, Germany is benefitting "massively from the Austrian border control measures on the Balkan route." When confronted with Germany's grave complaints in mid-February, Faymann told "Kurier," an Austrian newspaper, "We have taken the steps that Germany will also take. I am convinced that we will soon harmonize again."
Some believe that the harmony has already been restored. In Berlin on Wednesday, Germany's Vice-Chancellor, Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, said "The frequently called-for change in German policy has since taken place." Merkel has not sent a welcoming gesture to the refugees stuck in Greece and she now advises people to stay in Greece for the time being, yet she would never openly speak of a policy reversal.